Sarah Slean waxes philosophical on ‘Land & Sea’Alot has changed in Sarah Slean’s life since releasing the appropriately regal and rousing piano-cabaret album The Baroness in 2008. She left her record label, got married and completed her philosophy degree, all of which, in one way or another, have planted the seeds for her stunning double album, Land & Sea, wherein the singer/songwriter finally divides her time between a straight-up pop record (Land) and sweeping, cinematic orchestra-backed cabaret (Sea). WE spoke with Slean in advance of her Nov. 23 show at the Rio about going broke, Justin Bieber and the heady world of art and the temporal universe.
The last time we spoke, you said that you need to be constantly evolving, and that means working outside of major labels. Is Land & Sea part of that evolution?
Absolutely. Warner did not constrain me creatively at all, but artistically speaking I always have to go somewhere new. I always want to feel like a new person is making this record, because if you haven’t changed, why would you give the world a piece of expression again? Have you learned something? Do you have a new insight for us? I talk about art-making in terms of entertainment and art. I feel like both are equally valid and the world obviously has desire for both, but I feel like the entertainment side takes you away from life; it distracts you from life. It’s a little vacation from life. But I want to make stuff that takes people deeper into life, that pushes them further into it, not run away from it.
Creating a tension between the consumer and the artist?
Yeah, there’s that, but I feel like neither is wrong. Justin Bieber is great. He fulfills a need, but he doesn’t fill the need of a person who wants to find more meaning in their life through music... David Adam Richards, that book Mercy Among the Children that I championed unsuccessfully for Canada Reads, I felt like that was such a difficult, hard book, but I felt like I was so changed by it! World view, philosophically changed. I feel like that’s what makes it great art... Sometimes that’s uncomfortable, but it’s always transformative, and that’s the kind of stuff that I want to make.
There’s such a distinct line between the Land & Sea. Is this representative of your musical interests, or are they aspects of a whole?
The reason they’re two albums, and why I didn’t release one and then the other, is that lyrically the perspective of each makes more sense in contrast and they develop deeper meanings in relation to each other.
“New Pair of Eyes”, “I Am a Light”, “Set it Free”, “Life” — everything about Land felt almost heavenly.
What I want to talk about with this album is it’s not one or the other. They’re ends of a spectrum and the spectrum is the all-ness of everything that is. To be the person you are with the name you are and the age you are and the statistics on the ID in your wallet, the people in your life, the country you live in, all of these very specific, temporal things, they often blind us to the experience of the eternal, the unity that is all. Being a specific person is the illusion of separateness, but it isn’t to be condemned. And a lot of spiritual traditions have cast aside the body, like ‘Oh, this is all an illusion and we’re not actually separate, this is all one thing.’ But to condemn the body is totally missing the point, because the body is the portal through which we come to that visceral experience of the eternal... It’s almost like God, or whatever it is, is playing with form. Look at the flower. Some flowers are so crazy, you’re like, “There is something having a gay old time playing with shit,” you know? It’s so weird! They look like Muppets or something.
The ambition of this project — particularly Sea which features a 21-piece orchestra — seems crazy. Why now?
Well, I’m going to quote Rainer Maria Rilke: “All things consist of a carrying to term and then giving birth.” I feel like two or three years ago, there’s no way I could have made this record. When we recorded Sea, it was two days in June. Six hours of rehearsing and then six hours of recording. So everything was live: I was playing piano and singing, looking through a window and watching the conductor. I was nervous on the first day, but if that had been me two years ago, there’s no way I could have done it. I would have been a mess! But I went in there and I had this feeling of right-ness and fluidity and the doubt was at bay. The doubt’s kind of always there, but I figured out a way to ignore it and lean more heavily on the side that knows, like just knows that this is what I do, like breathing. That’s what I mean about the carrying to term. I don’t think this music would have come to me until those powers had ripened. When you’re confident enough and you have that skill-set, the philosophical footing and groundedness I now have, which is a new thing for me (laughs), when all those things had coalesced to the right point, then the music comes through you. It’s really a magical thing to be able to look at my own evolution spiritually and as a person over the trajectory of my albums. I even look at The Baroness and go, ‘Wow, who is that?’
Is there s a specific moment you can mark that was a turning point between this being a dream and a reality?
Well, I don’t think you ever receive an idea — from wherever they come from, the universe or whatever — I don’t think it comes to you without inherent in it the absolute, affirmed possibility that it can happen. They come together. The idea comes with the promise that it is possible. Just holding that inside, just keeping that little flame burning, was enough to weather the storms of doubt that inevitably come. The storms of like, there’s no more money in my business account. Okay, what do I do now? Which happened twice during this recording! But this is the game of life and this is why I love it so much.
Sarah Slean plays Nov. 23 at Rio Theatre (1660 E. Broadway), 7pm. $28.50 from Ticketmaster.